Late last year I asked Christian Hörgren if he would mind reviewing the IMAGO GAIA fly reel for a post on T.F.M. Christian agreed and soon after sent this detailed review. I appreciate him taking the time to send an article that is so complete and interesting to read.
Christian wrote... I have had my eyes on Alex Kaplun for some years now. Based in Ukraine, the former aeronautical engineer has become one of the eminence grises in fly reel design. He works with lightweight materials such as titanium and aluminum, and has developed several unique drag systems over the years. Kaplun has also been collaborating with other manufacturers. Master designer and splitcane rod builder Leen Huisman has a fabulous line of reels produced by Alex Kaplun. Another famous Kaplun design is the Hardy Marksman reel, which is based on a Kaplun model called TR23. But where the TR23 is made in Ukraine, the Marksman reel is manufactured in China.
A couple of years ago I spent a week in Tjuonajokk in the northern part of Sweden. One day I met John Zerihoun, CEO of IMAGO Flyfishing. John and his friend Alex were field testing some gear for the upcoming product line. I lawn cast a few rods and a beautiful little reel – a hubless design based on Alex Kaplun’s TR23 reel. This was my first contact with the IMAGO line of equipment. Today IMAGO has an impressive line of products including graphite rods designed by Gary Loomis, waders, jackets, float tubes, accessories, and of course the GAIA fly reel.
The IMAGO GAIA is built in a limited run of 300 reels, and it is handmade in Kaplun’s shop in Ukraine. It’s made out of D16T aircraft aluminum which makes it light and strong. Even the handle is made from aluminum which gives the reel a high tech and engineered touch. Like the Kaplun original, it comes in two sizes: #2/3 and #4/5. The weight is very low, almost too low for people fishing with cane and fiberglass rods. The #4/5 only weights 2.8 ounces which makes it the perfect reel for a 8’ four weight graphite rod. It comes in a beautiful padded leather bag with each reel numbered and signed by Alex Kaplun. The overall feeling is high end and very well built.
The drag system is a traditional spring and pawl mechanism resulting in a click drag with a similar brake in both directions. No need to ask how to change it from left hand to right hand, which is neat. The click reel is an old and robust construction. You don’t have to worry about getting dirt or ice inside the reel. Just wash it off and you are good to go. In practical use, it performs very well. I had no problems with line or tippet getting stuck and the size is somewhere between large and small arbor which is a great compromise. You get the advantage from a large arbor reel with the possibility to wind in quickly, but you don’t walk around with a bicycle wheel on your favorite rod.
Over the past ten years we have seen several hubless reels on the market, but no one has really convinced the market of it’s superiority. Backwinder, Dormisch-Absi, Loop Hi-tech, Marco and Psaros are all interesting examples of beautiful and brave design, but the construction has very often proved to be fragile. The biggest challenge in hubless reel design is to make an adjustable drag. Alex Kaplun and IMAGO has chosen not to deal with that problem, because when you go light, a click is all you need. This is definitely a keeper, but if you are interested, do not hesitate, IMAGO will not produce more than 300 reels in this design.
John Zerihoun promises it’s not the last reel from IMAGO and had this to say... "GAIA is a design concept in a limited run. We tried to make a symbiosis where Kaplun’s high tech meets the heritage of traditional fly reel design with a solid frame and ported spool. We have developed a reel that matches modern graphite rods without losing the soul and personality you get from great handicraft. This brings a deeper value for the owner, a feeling that will last for a lifetime. The next generation of GAIA will be created in collaboration with another designer. Perhaps by someone who has nothing to do with fishing…"